You've probably seen the above image everywhere today. The first ever photograph of a black hole. BFD right? It looks like a blurry SpeghettiO smashed against the side of a can. Wrong.
Up until day, the evidence for black holes was indirect. Scientists could see their gravitational influence from the way stars behaved, or from gravitational waves which were only recently detected. But today was the first time in human history that a black hole had been observed.
This sucker is enormous. It exists about 55 million light-years away and could comfortably fit our entire solar system. It's hard to wrap your head around it, but I'm here to give you four fun facts you can "well actually..." your friends with this weekend. And what feels better than flexing on your friends with knowledge. Not a whole lot.
1. Black holes are dead stars
You've probably heard that when our sun dies, it'll swell up to a red giant and vaporize the inner planets before exploding. Pleasant. But that's not what happens with massive stars much larger than our sun. Once their fuel runs out, they collapse under their own gravity. The remaining matter is flung into space and what remains is a singularity of infinite density.
2. Time is bonkers near a black hole
The larger an object is, the more gravity it has. The more gravity an object has, the slower time moves. Think of it like this. You and three of your friends are holding a bed sheet by the corners. The sheet is the spacetime fabric. Someone drops a ping pong ball in the center of your sheet. That represents Earth. The sheet slightly warps. Now imagine someone drops a 100 lb iron ball in the middle of your sheet. The spacetime fabric would severely warp compared to the ping pong ball. So if you were unlucky enough to be falling into a black hole, time would move much slower for you compared to your luckier friends back on Earth.
3. There's a super massive black hole at the center of our galaxy
Has anyone seen it? No. We're at a bad angle. But we can see its influence in the behavior of surrounding stars. Not too worry. We're way too far away to get sucked in. You can go back to worrying about everything that can kill you on this planet alone.
4. Two of them crashed into each other a billion years ago, and we heard it in 2015
You may remember the big news a few years back about gravitational waves. Well what happened was a team of astrophysicists built two facilities to detect gravitational waves which hadn't been observed before. Basically they turned the machines on and BAM! Event detected. The waves rippling through spacetime were the result of a violent collision between two black holes over a billion light-years away. It even recorded the noise it made!
Ask people my age about Voyager and I think most would say they've at least heard of it. Maybe they'd even remember it was a set of twin satellites that took photos of the gas giants? They might even bring up the Golden Record. Maybe I'm giving people too much credit? But after watching The Farthest - Voyager in Space I need to ask:
Do people forget how awesome Voyager was?
I know I do. Both Voyager satellites launched 10 years before I was born. Voyager 2's final image of Neptune beamed back to Earth when I was 18 months old. I've always had the luxury of comprehending the enormity of Jupiter's Great Red Spot, or seeing the shadow of Saturn on its magnificent rings. I've been blessed with data.
These enormous giants were once immeasurably distant specs of light moving among the stars. They captivated our imaginations, serving as the pillars of early religion and inspiring the names of all seven days - names we still use today.*
Voyager happened at the right time. NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory calculated a rare alignment of the planets favorable for a fly-by mission. How rare was it? The last time an alignment was this ideal, Thomas Jefferson was our nation's president.
With an audacious plan, NASA built two small bus-sized satellites designed to take photographs and collect data of the gas giants. Each encounter would last several weeks, followed by a slingshot to the next alien world using gravitational assist, eventually slipping beyond our solar system at a speed of 10 miles per second.
Voyager 2 launched first. As it approached its initial target, the images poured in. Early on, it was a small dot on a screen. Faster and faster, the details emerged - swirling stripes and tumultuous storms. Finally, we arrived at the king of planets. Our Roman god.
Voyager 1 left Earth a few months later. Using a shorter, faster trajectory, it zipped past Voyager 2 to study one of Saturn's moons. Titan. The reason being Titan's surface was believed to be similar to that of an early Earth's and we could learn a lot about ourselves from this distant moon. Despite the scientific intent of studying Titan, what we remember most was experiencing the grandeur of Saturn's rings up close for the first time in human history. Cosmic dust dancing endlessly in orbit and we had courtside seats.
Brevity is impossible when describing the scientific significance of this mission. Writing the details would take weeks and who the hell wants to read that. After all, this isn't a scientific article. It's a love letter to Voyager.
I'll leave this blog with one final thought.
At the end of Voyager 1's orbit around Titan, the illustrious Carl Sagan asked the satellite for one last job before taking off for interstellar space. Turn around and take a picture of Earth. An asinine request in nature because, at 4 billion miles away, Earth is just a small spec of light. But you don't tell Carl Sagan no. The command was sent and the photo was snapped.
What came back served zero scientific purpose. But rather a poetic reminder of how far we've come, yet how far we still have to go.
On a day like today, where the news is all too familiar, it's a reminder of Voyager's most significant legacy.
That's us. One single pixel. A pale blue dot suspended in a sunbeam.
When was the last time you looked up? Focusing on the stars and thinking about your place within the cosmic network? There's a good chance it's been a minute. Maybe you never have. It's easy to let the stress of our lives pull our heads down.
A year ago I tried something new. I signed up for Sun Salutations Yoga at Adler Planetarium. The one hour class offered every first Saturday is a rare opportunity to practice yoga beneath the domed Grainger Sky Theater with flowing celestial objects projected above.
I've said it before – I'm terrible at yoga. I never know what I'm doing, I have the physical flexibility of a dead animal, and I'm too cynical to believe anything about chakras. But I keep going back to my mat.
Yoga is all about connection. It bridges your physical and spiritual side through movement and focused breathing. Or something like that. I'm still figuring it out. But what I do know is that showing up on your mat and connecting with something larger than ourselves is what it's all about.
Sun Salutations is an opportunity to let go of your stress and focus your attention on the natural beauty of the cosmos. Along the way, with your breathing and movement, you begin to understand your place in the universe. You feel the atoms that make your physical form and how they came from the dust of a star that died a long time ago.
The collapse of a star gave us the iron in our blood.
One tumultuous event can create new opportunities.
There's no substitution for actually going outside and looking up at the stars, but Sun Salutations is the next best thing available. If you can escape the city for a bit, I encourage you to take a moment and look up. It's easy to feel insignificant, but if you focus long enough, you'll feel you're part of the universe. The hydrogen that fuels our sun is the same hydrogen flowing through your veins. You belong and you matter.
On Thursday, December 29th, astronomers pointed the Subaru Telescope atop Hawaii's Mauna Kea near the constellation of Orion in hopes of tracking a moving point of light. The proposed traversing object is believed by many astronomers to be the mysterious and distant Planet Nine.
Earlier this year, Planet Nine's theorized existence was made popular by astronmers Mike Brown and Konstantin Batygin. The two, based out of Caltech, suggested that orbital abnormalities found in distant objects beyond Pluto may be caused by the influence of a massive celestial body looming in the deep reaches of our Solar System. A planet believed to be 10 times more massive than Earth that follows a highly elliptical orbit with an perihelion (closest point) of 200 Astronomical Units (AU) and aphelion (farthest point) of 1,000 AU.
To put the possible distance of Planet Nine into perspective, Earth orbits the Sun at a comfortable distance of 1 AU or about 93 million miles. Pluto, which took the New Horizons space probe nearly ten years to reach, has an aphelion of 49.3 AU. So we're talking about a planet that, at its closet point, is around 18.5 billion miles away from Earth.
So how can astronomers even find a planet this far off in the distance? Well, it's simple - sort of. First they'll need to know where to look. The orbital trajectory of Planet Nine has been theorized based on gravitational disturbances in far objects, so astronomers have an idea of where to point and shoot. However, it can't just be any old telescope. It will need to be one with a large aparture, like the one found on the Subaru Telescope. This will allow for faint light in the deepest parts of our Solar System to be collected. Planet Nine is so far away that the light it reflects from the Sun will be incredibly dim, so a large apature is vital.
This is where the decetive work really begins. Every night, astronomers will study a frame from the sky and look for something that moves. Because of its vast distance, this will require some patience - possibly taking until next winter to spot. However, If the theory is correct, and eventually they see something move across the canvas of stars, they will have found their ninth planet.
It sounds simplistic, but it's how Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto in 1930. It would also not be the first time a planet was discovered before it was physically observed. In 1846, Neptune's existence, theorized using only mathematics by Urbain Le Verrier, was proved to be correct within 1° of the predicted position.
If Brown and Batygin's theory is correct, and a giant planet is in orbit from beyond the Kuiper Belt, the model of our Solar System will forever be changed. It will usher in new theories on how our Solar System formed and how Planet Nine was exiled to its current orbital path.
President Obama published an intriguing op-ed today*, exclusively with CNN on his desire to see NASA and the private sector work in tandem to send astronauts to Mars and back. While his proposal is outlined loosely, the president touched on what technologies are being developed that will allow astronauts to remain in space for an extended period of time. With a target of America becoming the first nation to traverse between Earth and Mars by the 2030s, President Obama has set a lofty goal in which I believe is not that crazy of an idea.
For what it's worth, I am forever a space exploration optimist, so perhaps my takes aren't grounded in measured detail like they should be, but it's my blog and I don't really give a damn. Let's go to Mars!
My initial thought when reading President Obama's post was about damn time. When the president retired the space shuttle program early into his tenure, I was disappointed. I was deeply worried that his campaign promises of putting more effort into science and technology along with introducing STEM careers to women and minorities was nothing more than pandering to silicon valley money. But the more I thought about it, the more his plan made sense. The idea of blasting a shuttle into low Earth orbit and going around the globe a few times doesn't really advance our understanding of the solar system and its contents. It sparks interest and public support, but honestly, It stalls planetary sciences tremendously and is incredibly wasteful. Instead, the time and resources devoted to the shuttle program would be allocated to exploring deeper, interplanetary space. More specifically, figuring out hot to conquer the fuck out of Mars.
So I've been waiting. Since 2011, when Atlantis docked for the final time, I've been waiting for any progress that'll help get us to Mars.
Slowly, they rolled in. Some of the more famous missions were Curiosity in 2012, Rosetta in 2014, New Horizons in 2015, ISS Year Long Mission in 2016. At the same time SpaceX and Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos' private space enterprise Blue Origin made stunning advancements in reusable rockets that will one day bring explorers to and from the red planet. These have been monumental achievements in space exploration and have kept space enthusiasts more than happy. But we've still been waiting for a concrete plan.
Now getting to Mars is going to be incredibly dangerous. The first problem is that Mars' and Earth's orbits have to align in a way that will get the astronauts to the planet in the most efficient way possible. That means letting the Martian gravity to do the work which may bring the travel time to a factor of just under one year. Moreover, once the astronauts are safely on Mars, they'll will have to wait about 24 months for the orbits to align properly again to be able to come home. That is if we're even talking about a trip home unlike Elon Musk's initial plan. So that introduces a different problem.
Astronauts are going to be on Mars for a very long time - years in fact. How does one survive on a planet with an absence of a magnetic field to deflect harmful radiation, an average temperature of -67F, an atmospheric pressure of 1% of Earth's and, oh yeah, no air, water or food that grows in the ground?
Well, that's why the President is emphasizing support for STEM careers and the cooperation between NASA and the private sector. Because the problems with landing on Mars are not insignificant ones and need creative innovators to solve.
I know that sounds like political nonsense and that it glosses over vast and complex problems with life or death consequences. I get that. However, it's important to think about the challenges faced during the Apollo missions and how they were overcome. These challenges with life support, mass reduction and communication were monumental at the time but they were ultimately solved. Not only did these solutions get us to the moon and back, but that they lived on as spinoff technologies that crafted new industries. It's not improbable to think that it can be done again.
Writing a blog for CNN isn't exactly how I pictured the president announcing the plan to go to Mars. I pictured Obama on the same platform as JFK with a charismatic and empowering speech on America's spirt for exploration. But I'll take whatever I can get because I am so ready for us to get off this dumb planet. I love Earth, but we've trashed the living hell out of it and I think it's going to take something drastic to fix it. My hope is that landing on a new planet and experiencing nature in a whole new spectrum will get us to appreciate the world from which we were forged.
I feel incredibly optimistic that we'll get to Mars by the 2030s. It is beyond imperative that we go. To become a binary planet species would not only alter the course of human evolution, but it would perhaps put an end to climate change here on Earth. I believe this because we previewed the profound effect of leaving our planet once before.
On Christmas Eve, 1968, during the Apollo 8 mission, a photograph of Earth was taken that altered the way people thought about our home. This picture was gifted to us and, for the first time, showed humanity how blue and how beautiful we truly were. It suddenly gave us an appreciation for the Earth and the diversity amongst its inhabitants. It reminded us how incredibly vulnerable life on our planet was and how in such a short evolutionary span, our species temporarily left it. This photograph transformed the way people thought about the planet and our role in protecting it. So much so that it would only take one short year for the National Environmental Policy Act to be enacted by congress.
The journey to Mars will not be without tragedy. It will be filled with failures and gargantuan setbacks. We will question if this is worth our focus but the drive to explore is so deeply engrained in our species that we will eventually get there. I am undoubtedly with the president on this. We can not afford not to go. Mars will save us.
*This is probably just a coincidence about President Obama dropping this on a Tuesday, but here's a fun fact. The seven days of the week are named after the seven celestial bodies believed to all be planets by the ancient Romans and inspired by Hellenistic astrology.
Sunday (Helios/Sol) Monday (Selene/Moon) Tuesday (Ares/Mars) Wednesday (Hermes/Mercury) Thursday (Zeus/Jupiter) Friday (Aphrodite/Venus) Saturday (Kronos/Saturn)
I write the words I'm too uncomfortable to say.